On Theatre

Waiting for – anything

Krapp’s last tape might these days be a collection of WhatsApps and stored Instagram images, muses Anne McElvoy

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Our playhouses urgently need hard-headed business plans to survive the next stint of the Covid Golgotha. Fights for the spoils of government largesse are raging: should the money preserve fragile, often part-time, jobs in a sector which is shedding the muscle-mass of technical and creative staff or focus on keeping the infrastructure of buildings intact? The jury is out and meanwhile the shows need to go on, by any available means.

Lessons of the lockdown are coming home to roost. The National Theatre gave away grade-A performances (I reviewed a couple of them in past issues) but netted a relatively paltry amount in donations. The instinct to share James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors or Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein was a boon to those of us pining for the swish of the safety curtain. The economics were, alas, terrible — the National invited free-riders and inevitably got them, at the time when it needed hard cash.

This sobering experience has shifted the lockdown model of digital theatre paid-for access at an affordable price. The Old Vic’s “In Camera” offering treats it like a virtual night-in-the-stalls with tiered fees (around £20-£30), though the viewing experience is the same. A clever aspect of this way of doing things is that you can “invite” a guest to join you for the same matinee or evening performance, which is a lot more convivial than streaming alone.

Such is the theory; and the theory remains for now because, in the luckless way of 2020, the Old Vic was forced at the last minute to postpone Stephen Beresford’s monologue Three Kings when its sole performer, Andrew Scott, had to go into hospital for an operation. The play, about the ambiguities of a father-son relationship, had been written expressly for Scott, the mellifluous star of Fleabag and Sherlock.

This malchance demonstrates the fragility of the model. Digital experiences rely on star talent as their vector — in this case the pulling power and hypnotic monologue skills of Scott.

He may be a bit crazy in his obsessions, but not so much that we cannot glimpse ourselves in Krapp

Happily (though it is not an adjective much associated with the author), the Samuel Beckett Foundation has helped fill the gap, teaming up with an impressive subscription service called Digital Theatre to stream a recording of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and Old Friends made at the Jermyn Street Theatre before lockdown, in a production directed by the tireless octogenarian, Sir Trevor Nunn.

I wondered how it would look on screen, and we inevitably lose some of the cloying sense of eerie intimacy. “With all this darkness around me, I feel less alone,” muses Krapp. Still, we can grasp the tenebrous quality of Max Pappanheim’s set. Krapp is condemned to revisit the shifting shoals of his past self and embarks on an odyssey through his heydays as writer and lover (unsatisfactory on both accounts). A shuffling James Hayes inhabits this mix of pride and pain poignantly, his treasured tapes spooling, clogging and cluttering like an early-stage technological Domesday book.

He may be a bit crazy in his obsessions, but not so much that we cannot glimpse ourselves in Krapp, and our minds wander to the letters, books or emails we can’t help hoarding. Odd to think that Krapp’s last tape might these days be a collection of WhatsApps and stored Instagram images.

The companion piece (the bill is reduced from three plays in the original Jermyn Street Theatre production to two) is The Old Tune, adapted by Beckett from a play by Robert Pinget and starring David Threlfall — who is acquiring national treasure status for his ability to make awkward, angular characters appealing — and Niall Buggy as his artfully dopey sidekick Gorman.

Echoes of the uneasy partnership of Vladimir and Estragon lurk: these two share the same traits of unreliable narrators and off beat images. One draws a circle to point to the moon, the other sees a round cheese. It’s lighter and warmer fare than Waiting for Godot, but turns on the acceptance that superannuated friendship is as much about filling the holes in our souls as it is about affection.

Nunn has been at this lark since he was the RSC’s artistic director in the late 1960s and still going wonderfully strong in his ninth decade, bringing the showmanship which has always been his calling card to bear on lesser-known works. Turn the lights down for a haunting effect and enjoy the sound of brilliant poetic theatre. “White world, great trouble, not a sound only the embers, sound of dying glow.” All too atmospheric as autumn beckons.

We need to stay chipper, as Beckett never said, so I thought I would end by dangling the prospect of a production to look forward to at the Old Vic whenever we get back to our distanced seating. Timothée Chalamet, the languid teenage crush via his screen hits in Ladybird and Little Women, was cast just before the big shutdown with Eileen Atkins in 4000 Miles, Amy Herzog’s neat two-hander about a grandmother and grandson thrown together in a New York apartment by the accidental death of her son (his father) on a camping trip.

Herzog is one of a new generation of bankable American star writers surveying bittersweet family dramas which can feel a bit full-strength by British standards but make a Pulitzer-sized hit on Broadway. The play is a heartening antidote to the view that old age is a bloody battle field of regrets. Tragedy can’t be written out of life’s uneven script, but it does give rise to new experiences, and here to cross-generational affinity and a very funny scene in which granny and grandson get magnificently stoned together.

Finally, a farewell to note is the retirement of The Phantom of the Opera, closing early — if you can call a run of 34 years early. It is a musical which had as much of a life in satires and sketches as it did in its full pomp. Full confession: I never saw it and still don’t know who was responsible for the phantomly turpitude. But in the spirit of giving West End warhorses due respect, I have a pact with an actress friend to get round to seeing Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (a 68-year unbroken run) when it reopens some time soonish. Until then, please don’t tell me if the mouse did it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover